What the Crisis in Ukraine Means for Northeast Asia

International borders are manmade. They are arbitrary, although they often conform to some natural feature of the landscape. And they are very difficult to change. It is a cornerstone of the international system that borders should not be altered by force. Particularly since the end of World War II, the international system has resisted any changes to the map.

Of course, the map of the world has changed, often quite dramatically, since 1945. The end of colonialism produced many new states and some new borders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Independence movements very occasionally forced a change in boundaries, creating the new UN members Bangladesh, Eritrea, East Timor, and South Sudan. And the dissolution of multi-ethnic federations – the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia – forced cartographers to go back to the drawing board.

But what just happened in Crimea is very different. Crimea is a peninsula that juts into the Black Sea. Until recently, it had been part of Ukraine. But after the collapse of the Yanukovych government in Kiev in February, Russian troops spread throughout Crimea, effectively occupying the region. Russian-backed politicians seized control of the parliament and pushed through a referendum. When Crimeans went to the polls on March 16, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of becoming part of Russia. But many Crimeans had boycotted the referendum, and the vote had taken place in an atmosphere of intimidation.

The interim government in Ukraine showed admirable restraint during this crisis. It did not order its own forces in Crimea to fight back against the Russian soldiers (who, for the most part, went around in unidentified uniforms). Kiev is focusing on its own upcoming elections – in May – and on preventing Moscow from messing with any other borders. Russia has massed troops on the border with Ukraine and spoken of the need to safeguard the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine.

The crisis is not over. The United States and the European Union have condemned Russian moves and refused to recognize the results of the March referendum. Indeed, aside from Syria, Venezuela, and Afghanistan, few countries have followed Russia’s lead in acknowledging the change in borders. Russia, meanwhile, has begun to change the reality on the ground in Crimea, and some Ukrainians have already fled the area. But so far, a war has not broken out, not in Crimea, not between Ukraine and Russia, and not between Washington and Moscow. The world awaits a diplomatic solution.

Northeast Asia, at first glance, might not seem to be affected by what is taking place in Crimea. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, borders have not really changed in the region. Only the reversion of Hong Kong and Macau to China, in 1997 and 1999 respectively, has prompted anyremapping of the area.

Beneath the surface, however, Northeast Asia is teeming with territorial disputes. Russia and Japan have still not resolved the issue of the four Kurile islands that Russia has occupied since the end of World War II. The Crimea crisis will likely push those negotiations to the backburner. Two other island issues – Dokdo/Takeshima and Senkaku/Diaoyu – continue to pit Japan and Korea on the one hand and Japan and China on the other. North and South Korea have been waging a low-intensity conflict for several decades over their maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea. And two enormous armies face off across the Taiwan Straits, though Beijing and Taipei currently enjoy reasonably good relations.

When Russia moved on Crimea, all eyes turned to China to gauge its reaction. Would it side with Russia, as it has on the Syrian crisis, or would it align itself with its major economic partners in Europe and the United States? So far, China’s response to the annexation of Crimea has been carefully balanced. It abstained during the UN vote condemning the referendum. It has attempted to maintain good relations with both Russia and those countries opposed to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It has consistently stressed its core belief in non-interference in the affairs of other countries.

China, of course, faces various independence movements – in Tibet, in Xinjiang – not to mention its decades-long rift with Taiwan. Beijing certainly doesn’t want other countries to interfere in those issues. At the same time, a strong vein of nationalism runs through the Chinese citizenry. Pressure for the Communist Party leaders to change borders by force – either against Japan or across the Taiwan Straits or in the South China Sea – may rise as a result of Russia’s actions. But China is a cautious power. Unlike Russia in Crimea, China would face considerable resistance should it opt for military intervention. China has traditionally been reluctant to do anything that might jeopardize its economic standing and trade relations with other countries.

North Korea was one of the 11 countries that voted on Russia’s side in the UN vote on Ukraine. No doubt Russia’s accusations of U.S. meddling in Ukraine meets with approval within the Pyongyang leadership. It has opted to use the current conflict to strengthen its relationship with Moscow. It has also conducted several missile tests, perhaps in an effort to regain some of the international attention that has been focused on Ukraine.

The return of a Cold War dynamic in trans-Atlantic relations does not bode well for Northeast Asia, where the Cold War has never really ended. Any regional effort to negotiate a security framework with North Korea now faces the additional challenge of U.S.-Russian animosity. China, Russia, and North Korea will likely decide that it is in their best interest to stick together more closely in the face of the consolidation of NATO in Europe and U.S. efforts to strengthen its alliances in the Pacific. Russia’s isolation, in other words, will make North Korea feel less isolated and less willing to negotiate from a position of weakness.

It’s not likely that any country in Northeast Asia will follow Russia’s lead and launch a military intervention followed by a staged referendum. But the events in Ukraine should push the region toward solving the outstanding territorial disagreements. So far, we have dodged a bullet in Ukraine and a war has not broken out. The outbreak of a conflict between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, on the other hand, might not be so easy to contain.

Hankyoreh, April 7, 2014

 


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